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No Rest For Controversy Over Costly Plans To Honor Prominent Kazakh Dead 

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

Plans to honor Kazakhstan's illustrious dead with a pricey public burial site are not sitting well with the average, cash-strapped, citizen.

The idea is to construct a pantheon -- or public building that would house the graves of prominent Kazakhs -- and cemetery, which would sit on some 9,000 hectares of land near Astana and cost an estimated $235 million, according to local media.

But for many who are struggling to make ends meet amid an economic downturn, that's too steep a price to pay.

Almaty resident Zhenis Kairzhanova took to Twitter to declare: "If they want a pantheon, well, let them build it. But not with taxpayers' money -- let the pantheon's users pay for that."

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Yakov Fyodorov, a self-described blogger, tweeted that "the proposal to build a pantheon during a crisis is the same as calling all pensioners to one place and telling them that we are building a beautiful and expensive cemetery instead of raising their pensions."

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"Now it is necessary to take care of economy a little bit," one elderly woman told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "We pensioners are living like beggars. Our pensions are too small. We worked all our lives."

Another woman alluded to the widely held belief that the country's long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, was frittering the people's money away in an effort to secure his own legacy.

"If the lower classes in Kazakhstan could decide, not upper classes, then the people would decide that all these things like pantheons, etc., are stupid," she said. "If [Nazarbaev] turns out to be in the pantheon, it does not mean that he will remain on the throne."

News of the plans came as surprise when media began reporting on the pantheon this spring. The first public comment about the project came from Culture and Sports Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly, who characterized the project as something that had to be done.

"The great personalities who lived and worked [in Kazakhstan] have a right to become the pride of generations to come," Mukhamediuly was quoted as saying on May 18."Therefore, we must build that pantheon."

Following The Pharaohs' Example?

On May 26, the pantheon moved a step closer to becoming reality when the Astana City Council approved a plan to grant more than 1,400 hectares to the project. The head of the City Directorate for Land Issues, Toleughazy Nurkenov, told journalists on May 26 that the move was needed "to implement the orders of the state leader [President Nazarbaev] regarding the construction of the National Pantheon and the necessity to set up a new city cemetery."

The director of the Almaty-based Risks Assessment Group think tank, Dosym Satpaev, said, however, that the multimillion-dollar price tag is causing "not just bewilderment, but resentment in society." This is in part because it comes after Nazarbaev called on Kazakhs earlier this year to tighten their belts as the country's oil-dependent economy rides out a fall in crude prices.

As anger has spread on social media, there have been some indications that authorities are rethinking their plans. Economy Minister Quandyq Bishimbaev, who was recently appointed when predecessor was dismissed after a land privatization plan sparked protests across the country -- was quoted as telling journalists on May 27 that no money for the pantheon construction has been allocated for this or next year.

One big question is who would be interred in the pantheon – with Satpaev suggesting that many are concerned that the resting places will be taken by the current elite, not Kazakhs whose prominence has been defined by history.

Sergey Duvanov, an independent political observer in Almaty, thinks that the pantheon is intended for one person, President Nazarbaev, 75, who has run the oil-rich Central Asian nation with little tolerance for dissent since 1989.

"I think following the example of the pharaohs, he (Nazarbaev) thought it is time to take care of his immortality, his glory, the memories about him in the history of the Kazakhs, by creating a pantheon where, naturally, as the greatest Kazakh, he will be placed as the No.1 man," Duvanov said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service